Those of you who’ve listened to my podcasts have no doubt noticed my reference to George Pendle’s, Death: A Life (Three Rivers Press, 2008). This fictitious account of Death’s memoir, all things considered, is a fun read and a wild romp through various ancient religions. Postulating a loveable, if somewhat obtuse, God (no more obtuse, however, than the supreme being in Harold Bloom’s Book of J) Pendle populates his mythological world with a vast array of embodiments, personifications and supernatural beings, all slightly neurotic, and more or less on an equal playing field. Although the book is intended as fun, it does offer some serious consideration to the phenomenon of death.
One of the earliest intimations that Homo sapiens had begun to consider religious sensibilities is burial, the concomitant state to death. Burial serves an important biological function of preventing the diseases borne of putrefaction from infecting others, but it also serves as a condensed statement of a fledgling belief in an afterlife in some form. Even Neanderthal burials have been discovered with rudimentary grave goods. Concern for the wellbeing of the departed is surely a religious sentiment. Death and religion are never far from each other. Even the early Mesopotamians trembled at the etemmu, their version of a ghost, and marked it with the divine determinative on their clay tablets. Religion has been a fine-turned handle that humans have used to get a grip on death.
That is not to say, of course, that death is religion’s only concern, but there is some wisdom in that old saying that people seek out their religious leaders when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.” Mesopotamian (and Hebrew Bible, for that matter) afterlife was a gloomy prospect, yet it was certainly brighter than the alternative of the simple cessation of biological functions. Death as a concept inserts meaning into the all-too-natural act of dying. Not a religion exists that does not address itself to this great leveler of all human aspirations. If at times it seems that my posts tend toward the macabre, peopled with vampires, werewolves, zombies and Republicans, bear in mind that such creatures of the night are expressions of the essentially human and indisputably religious preoccupation with death. Its unbeating heart transfuses life to religion.